The Leica M Experience: A free day out in Leica's candy store
I have owned and exclusively used a Leica X Typ 113 for around fifteen months now, and in the most part it has been a wonderful photographic companion. It is, after all, my first introduction to a Leica camera, and the Leica system. However it can be a little frustrating with its hit and miss moments on some occasions.
I recently started saving and researching for my next camera. At home this is known as the Q fund. The brief in my head is fairly simple, match the X for its strengths, but manage better in the low light situations and, perhaps, a achieve a decent autofocus — or dare I say, an effective manual focus.
On the radar
My current research has taken me around a few gems to consider such as the Fuji X-Pro 2 and the Leica Q; perhaps returning to my DSLR roots with D500 or, maybe, something different entirely. Possibly, I thought, even a Sony: The A7iii has been on my radar. In essence nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out.
I am perhaps looking for a simplistic solution that will last for years, not just the next few. For me, photography is not about the best kit but how far I can manage to push the equipment I am using. I like to take my time researching, using review sites such as Macfilos, Ken Rockwell, Jono Slack, Steve Huff, as well as YouTube videos to understand each camera’s star points and foibles.
One evening, while reading about the Leica M, I came across the combined M and lens deals for the M262 on Red Dot Camera’s website. During the past year with the X, I often thought I would love an M rangefinder. The only off-putting element is the price. I am also nervous of having to learn a new camera that has no auto focus, and being so expensive that nervousness spreads to considerations about what if I do not like it?
I then stumbled upon something on the Leica Akademie website called the M Experience. It was also free, another bonus in deference to my Northern roots. I was unsure what experience I could actually gain with an M Experience, so I wrote to the contact point explaining what I wanted. The reply came from Robin Sinha at Leica Mayfair answering my query and more than fulfilling my expectations. I booked immediately.
So, in March I attended a Leica M Experience at the Leica store in Bruton Place, London. This was with Robin, one of head of photography training at the Leica Akadamie. I wanted to try the M to see what one was like to hold, touch and use, but also to see if it was a camera I realistically wanted to put the effort in to saving for.
It goes without saying that I took my trusty X on the journey, just in case there were photo opportunities outside of my time with the M. I also carried a few additional SD cards to use with the M, to ensure I could capture those moments that come with using a new camera for the first time, and allow me to share them here with you.
Once in London, I found my way to Green Park Underground station, and following a brief old-fashioned British cuppa found my way to Leica Mayfair. This was the first time I had ever been to this part of London, and I was a little confused by the Leica Cafe on one side of the mews, with store opposite.
The first part of the session was a slide show and discussion about the history of Leica, and the Leica rangefinder — plus, naturally, the M range of cameras that exist today. For me it was great to hear it set out with such enthusiasm and knowledge by Robin.
Here's an M10.....play
During the session I was handed an M10. Robin did show me an M240 so that I could compare size differences. If I am honest, once I felt the quality, weight and well-balanced proportions of the M10 I felt that the 240 in the room was just so yesterday. In my hands the M10 oozed quality. The dials, buttons, screen are all wonderful to the touch and in operation.
My M10 had the 35mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH mounted. This was the very lens I had requested in my initial email exchange with Robin. This is my dream team combination. I love the 35mm fixed prime on my Nikon, and the lens on my X is technically 35mm in full-frame equivalence. I am thus comfortable with it and enjoy the focal length and results it gives.
A point I feel is important to mention at this stage, is the weight difference. My X is around 450g. It is so light that even dangling at the end of my Rock n’Roll strap you hardly notice it’s there. The M, By comparison is over 600g, and with the Summicron it pushes 800g. You certainly feel that difference. It’s still nowhere near the very flabby 1kg-plus of my Nikon D300s and 35mm prime, but you do notice the additional weight.
The tour of the camera under Robin’s expert tutelage allowed me to quickly understand the menu system. I have previously written about the excellent menu system and button configuration on Leicas, and the M10 is no different. Even once you have set up those most commonly used features to your favourites menu, it is only a second press to get to the deeper menu structure underneath. Pure genius.
The dial set up suits how I work too. It is at its core a basic film camera and all of its roots shine through. So there are only a few buttons and dials, but those that are there are of vital importance — shutter, aperture (on the lens) and ISO are all there to use manually. For me, the menus and dials are photographic nirvana. This allows for that pure photographic experience.
There is no video, hoorah. This is a pure photographic tool. The older M240, by contrast, tried to be all things to all people and the video offering was, to my mind, totally superfluous.
While Robin told us the history of Leica, the nuances of how we have arrived at todays photographic systems, I naturally wanted to play with the camera I had coveted in recent years. So I did. My first-ever look through a rangefinder was interesting. I liked the framelines, the fact they allow me to see what is going on beyond my image boundaries (except, I’m told, with a 28mm lens where the frame occupies the full window). It was a little strange seeing a glimpse of the lens itself in the right hand corner. But hey this was the first look. It’s my first range finder experience and I’m sure you don’t even notice this. It’s also a function of lens size — you can’t see the 28mm Elmarit but you do catch a glimpse of the 35mm Summicron and perhaps even more as the lenses grow in size.
Manually focusing the first image was another new experience. The manual focus method, while alien, was familiar from my X experience. I tried sliding the focus ring on the lens from infinity backwards. Oddly the small square window slowly aligned, like the stars. When I thought I was there, I took the shot. The shutter sound was pleasantly surprising, it sounded like a quality camera should. There is no mini blackout as with DSLR cameras (and some electronic viewfinders on mirrorless cameras). And then, hey presto, an out of focus shot. I missed the sweet spot. Darn! I assume over time that you familiarise yourself with this process, and naturally you learn muscle memory that makes this easier as you practice more.
So — in use I found it challenging sitting there with my first fully manually focusing camera. In fact Robin reckoned when he started that it would be a couple of months before rangefinder focusing became fully fluid. I found that once I developed an understanding of the system, recognising that it is purely opt-mechanical, that it became more intuitive, and pleasantly welcoming to use. I would love to use it all the time, more so as I feel it would reduce the hit-and-miss elements often experienced by autofocus modules of both phase detection and contrast focusing cameras. At least in the M, I cannot blame the camera for missing the shot.
A point I feel needs to be made, is that this camera produces some sublime images, with that wonderful Leica look, even in my inexperienced hands. Even if some of those shots are out of focus, they are quite enjoyable and gorgeous to look at. While writing this review of the M experience, I put off processing the M files, and just looked at them sitting here on my Mac. No other camera has driven me to do that before.
While I was out and about with the camera, I tried the zone focusing method that Robin had explained back at the store. I took a few shots with this method and managed to get a couple that I was relatively happy with given my lack of experience, even when I fired from the hip at a weird angle.
Robin allowed me to try both the f/0.95 50mm Noctilux, and the f/1.4 50mm Summilux on the M10 in the shop. The Noctilux was certainly a wonderful bit of glass, and can pull a ridiculously good looking image, but that quality is expensive, and the lens weighs a ton. I’m told the most photographed subject for this lens is cats. Which makes you wonder about who buys it, regardless of the cost. Robin did give me some interesting facts about the construction of this fabled light gobbler, how the technicians take 20 years to acquire the experience to build it, and even then the quality assurance level is so high that a fair percentage of the lenses do not make it in to the world for photographic use. Now you know where all that money has gone when you buy one.
I came to review a Leica looking for simplicity, and for that basic photographic experience that I already love with my X. What I found with the M is that the simple approach is maintained and the camera is stripped out to a minimum. In fact, I would go so far as to say for the experience I have been seeking, this is complete photographic Nirvana. No tediously long menus, with settings you need a manual to dial in, no overly lengthy in-camera processing menus. I could see within a shot or two the DNA that made me love the X, I just couldn’t adapt quickly enough in the time available to wring more fun out of this bit of kit. My assumption is that, given time, a little like the X when I set out, I would get it, and then I would be able to capture whatever I wanted.
Manual focus is the big issue - it didn’t feel intuitive on this first test, and I assume from my experience of other reactionary events in day to day life, that this would embed itself in my muscle memory over time. Just how much time is the one remaining, and nagging worry for me. It is, after all, a significant expense if you make a mistake and don’t enjoy it.
The best alternative then if you are reading this Leica, is to build a rangefinder with a fixed 35mm Summicron. I am happy to spend years testing it to get it right for you. After all, I am sure it would sell like the Q did, but won’t have the EVF, it will have a classic rangefinder, but without the capability to change lenses.
In essence this test for me, might end up being the best camera I have ever held, and used, but never owned. And it could remain that way, more owing to the uncertainty of spending so much on a product I cannot fully understand the risk of buying.
My only disappointment with the overall experience is that I didn’t get longer to tinker with the camera, which might have allowed me to walk a little further and capture a few more of those unique moments. I am now also envious of those reviewers who own, use and hype the M, so Steve Huff et al… you have a new disciple to the cult of the M. However while I had been saving for a Q, this has whet my appetite and encourage me, possibly, to buy a CL, with an M-mount Summicron 24mm. The nearest to the X I could possibly get. Unless Leica releases a CL-based chassis with the TL 23mm bolted to it permanently.
Despite my slight misgivings over the M as a camera for me, I really enjoyed the Leica Experience and I feel Robin Sinha is a great ambassador for the marque. I can’t think of any other camera manufacturer that goes to this amount of trouble to give potential customers such a hands-on experience. That, along, is enough to keep me on the Leica bandwagon.
You can find details on Leica Mayfair’s M Experience and how to reserve a place here. This is a free introduction session but you may also be interested in paying £75 for Leica Bespoke, a one-to-one Akademie session.
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